by Brandon Butler
The next two years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe 4/6/2021

Awesome MCU Title

After a year-plus delay due to a global pandemic, Black Widow is just three months from releasing in theaters (and Disney+!) and the theatrical start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 4 will finally begin. So let’s take a look at the next two years of the MCU, and see just what the greatest film franchise on the planet has in store for us:

Let’s take a look at the next two years of the MCU, and see just what the greatest film franchise on the planet has in store for us.

Scarlett Johansson reprises her role (for the final time?) as Natasha Romanoff in Black Widow. Black Widow takes place in the period between Civil War and Infinity War as Natasha returns home and confronts her history. Robert Downey Jr. also appears as Iron Man from previous MCU films, so expect some significant flashbacks. And MCU newcomer Florence Pugh stars as Yelena Belova, another Black Widow who will show up in some future Disney+ series later this year.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stars Simu Liu in Marvel’s first Asian lead role exploring the clandestine Ten Rings organization, which has been referenced as far back as the first Iron Man film. Shang-Chi is a skilled martial artist with a difficult past. Tony Leung is The Mandarin, the leader of the Ten Rings. You might recognize the name of The Mandarin from Iron Man 3, in which Ben Kingsley played an actor playing the roll of The Mandarin, but now we’re going to meet the real deal.

The Eternals are an immortal alien race created by the Celestials who secretly live on Earth. They fight the Deviants, both of whom are offshoots of the process that created life on Earth (and Thanos was a hybrid created by both races). The Eternals film will be a massive origin story of not just an entire new race of beings but of individual characters played by big names like Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, and Kit Harington. Also, the score is being composed by Ramin Djawadi, which only feels right for a movie of this scale.

Spider-Man: No Way Home will wrap up the first year of Phase 4, which will see an entirely new type of Spider-Man film due to Far From Home‘s shocking mid-credits scene. Tom Holland, Zendaya, and Jacob Batalon return as Peter Parker, MJ, and Ned Leeds, with Benedict Cumberbatch reprising his role as Doctor Strange, as well as (according to rumors) Alfred Molina and Jamie Foxx as Doc Ock and Electro, respectively, reprising their roles from the original Toby McGuire Spider-Man and Andrew Garfield Amazing Spider-Man film series. Rumors also report that the original Spider-Men will make appearances, but I am highly suspect of these rumors. Similar to WandaVision‘s Quicksilver cameo recasting and J. K. Simmons’s cameo as J. Jonah Jameson in Far From Home, I suspect these villains are being recast more as fan-service than as a merging of the previous Spider-films. Doctor Strange’s appearance (and the upcoming Multiverse of Madness film) is likely lending credence to the rumors. And personally? I don’t want to see them appear, as I feel it dilutes the quality of the Spider-Man films currently in the MCU and gives Sony’s bad Spider-Man films more credit than they deserve.

The Spider-Man hype this year is huge, and rightly so.

The Spider-Man hype this year is huge, and rightly so. There’s also discussion of a fourth Spidey film in the MCU as Peter Parker starts college (rumors say it’s a possible trilogy, taking us well into 2027 or beyond with the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and don’t forget Tom Holland is due to reprise Spidey in a major MCU Avengers-style film within the next few years (I have a theory on this, but keep reading).

So that’s four big MCU films finally getting released after a two year drought of Marvel cinema, but we’re not done yet.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness releases in theaters in March 2022, just three months after No Way Home‘s release. In addition to Comberbatch, the cast includes the Scarlet Witch herself straight out of Westview, Elizabeth Olsen, and newcomer Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez, an extremely powerful superhero from Utopian Parallel, a reality out of time. America has the unique ability to punch star-shaped holes between realities and travel the multiverses. I’m beginning to detect a theme here.

Thor: Love and Thunder reunits Taika Waititi with the MCU (after taking a fun little detour to a galaxy far, far away) and reunites Chris Hemsworth’s Thor with Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster (who becomes the Goddess of Thunder, but this isn’t a spoiler, it’ll literally be the plot of the film as revealed at Comic-Con 2019). Also joining Thor (and reprising their roles) are the Gardians of the Galaxy, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, and Waititi as Korg. Good old, Korg. There are a lot of big names in this one, but don’t expect to see Zoe Saldana as Gamora just yet — this is Thor’s film, and the search for Gamora will likely be put on hold until the Gardians get their Vol. 3. There are enough big names, big heroes, and big egos in Thor 4 to make it feel like a mini-Avengers in space.

Thor: Love and Thunder is also the conclusion of Phase 4 of the MCU.

Next summer Ryan Coogler will take us back to Wakanda in Black Panther II, which will kick of Phase 5. With the role of T’Challa not being recast following the death of Chadwick Boseman, the film will explore other characters within Wakanda and — likely — pass the mantel of the Black Panther to Shuri. Filming begins this summer, and I’m honestly amazed they can begin filming and a year later have a completed movie.

Captain Marvel 2 will see release in November of next year, with Brie Larson returning as Carol Danvers, Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau (from WandaVision) and Iman Vellani reprising her role as Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel from the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel — more on that in a second!

Lastly, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania has a vague 2022 planned release date, but with the year pretty full, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the film slip to early 2023. Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly are both returning as the titles characters, with Jonathan Majors joining the MCU as Kang the Conqueror!

James Gunn returns to complete his trilogy on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in 2023. The core cast — Saldana included — is expected to return, with Hemsworth expressing interest in returning as Thor. Yes, please!

Blade staring Mahershala Ali is also joining the MCU and the film is now in development.

Finally, Jon Watts — director of the three MCU Spidey films — will be directing the MCU’s Fantastic Four. No cast or release date has been announced, but 2023 sounds like a reasonable timetable for release. Now, remember how I mentioned that Tom Holland is due to join a non-Spidey MCU film within the next couple of years? And how I just wrote that Watts was director of all three previous Spider-Man films set in the MCU? Marvel hasn’t announced anything yet, but the pairing seems obvious. Putting Spidey in Fantastic Four gives Marvel’s First Family a huge introduction and, maybe most importantly, sets it apart from previous FF films that have not been super successful (or good). Telling a story with the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man is something never before seen on the big screen, and possibilities for putting a paper bag over Tom Holland’s head are endless.

Putting Spidey in Fantastic Four gives Marvel’s First Family a huge introduction and sets it apart from previous FF films.

That’s every theatrical release for the next two-ish years for the MCU that has been announced by Disney. But the MCU has expanded beyond the cinema: Disney+ is joining the fray and providing home audiences with a new episode of something almost every day of the year. You already know WandaVision and we’re just getting started with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but let’s recap:

WandaVision officially kicked off Phase 4, and although it wasn’t the start Marvel intended, it was a huge weekly event for the MCU and Disney+. WandaVision was also intended to lead directly into Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, but it appears Wanda will be spending a little longer in her log cabin of seclusion than was intended — and viewers will be waiting a full year longer for the continuation of Wanda’s story in theaters.

The next Disney+ series to air, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, was intended to be the first MCU series on Disney+, but delays in filming due to the pandemic pushed the series back to mid-March. As the series has just begun airing, I don’t want to say anything except those first ten minutes of the first episode were wow. If that’s what we can expect from the future of the MCU on Disney+, I’m never canceling my subscription.

Loki stars Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson and takes place in an alternate timeline Loki creates after stealing the Tesseract during the time traveling antics of Avengers: Endgame. Loki premiers this June with a second season currently in development.

What If…? is a multi-season animated anthology series that takes events from the films and reimagines them in a whole new way. Many of your favorite MCU stars reprise their roles for the series, including Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Jeff Goldblum, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, Michael Rooker, Paul Rudd, Mark Ruffalo, and Taika Waititi, to name a few. Notably absent are the voices behind Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Stephen Strange, Carol Danvers, and Howard the Duck, who are also expected to feature in the series (sadly, no Peter Parker/Spider-Verse, I know, right?). While What If…? takes place in the MCU, the events of the series aren’t expected to impact the continuity of the films and other television series. A second season is also in development.

Later this year we’ll meet Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani girl who writes Captain Marvel fan fiction and gains incredible shape-shifting powers to become Ms. Marvel. Newcomer Iman Vellani is set to star in the series, which will setup Captain Marvel 2 where Vellani will reprise her role next year.

Later this year we’ll meet Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani girl who writes Captain Marvel fan fiction and gains incredible shape-shifting powers to become Ms. Marvel.

Jeremy Renner returns as Hawkeye, reprising his role from way back in the original Thor (and a few more recent MCU films) and introduces Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop. The Hawkeye series will show us more of Ronin, and guest star Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova (reprising her role from the Black Widow film). As a fan of Kate Bishop from the comics and Hailee Steinfeld from everything she does, I’m super excited to see this new Hawkeye pick up the bow. Hawkeye also introduces another new superhero: Maya Lopez / Echo. Echo is a deaf Native American who can perfectly copy of movements of others (and in the comics briefly maintained the identify of Ronin). Disney has announced Echo’s own series is in development for Disney+.

Hawkeye also concludes Phase 4 on Disney+’s streaming series. The next year’s worth of shows are currently in early development or just beginning filming, and we don’t have a lot of information about them yet, but here’s what we do know:

Oscar Isaac will star as Marc Spector in Moon Knight. Moon Knight is a vigilante who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, with each identity being a unique character. Th backdrop of the series is Egyptian iconography and has a Raiders of the Lost Arc vibe. Moon Knight should premier in early 2022, but likely sometime after Thor hits theaters (otherwise we’ll have overlapping phases which could tear apart the multiverse or just be really confusing to audiences).

She-Hulk stars Tatiana Maslany as Bruce Banner’s cousin Jennifer Walters, who gains Hulk-like strength after receiving a blood transfusion from Bruce. Mark Ruffalo will reprise his role as The Hulk, and Tim Roth reprises his role as Abomination from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Walters is a lawyer specializing in superhero legal matters, leading to Producer Kevin Feige teasing, “You never know what Marvel character is going to pop up from episode to episode.” Could this be the series to relaunch Daredevil in the MCU? Pure speculation on my part but it’s a shame the Defenders have been sidelined on Netflix.

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, written and directed by James Gunn, is a one episode “television special” that will take place between the events of Guardians Part II and Guardians Part III and is set to premiere in late 2022 on Disney+. There’s also a series of short films staring Baby Groot coming soon titled, of course, I am Groot.

Also newly announced for Disney+ is Secret Invasion staring Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, which will lead into future MCU films. Ironheart will star Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams, a character created by Miles Morales creator Brian Michael Bendis just before he left Marvel Comics for DC. And Armor Wars will star Don Cheadle as James Rhodes / War Machine and will explore Tony Stark’s biggest fears when his tech falls into enemy hands. Finally, an untitled Wakanda series is in the early stages of development. I would expect some of these series released mid or late 2022 and even into 2023.

Lastly, Disney+ has a few behind-the-scenes series available to the MCU obsessed: Marvel Studios: Legends recaps moments with different characters across the films and television episodes of the MCU. New episodes usually premier just prior to the release of a new series or film, beginning with Wanda Maximoff and The Vision back in January of 2021. Marvel Studios: Assembled is a behind the scenes documentary series with cast of crew of the shows and films. WandaVision is out now with new episodes planned for release shortly after a film or the final episode of a series has been released.

We’re getting some huge series on Disney+ and a massive set of movies over the next two years, and I’m super excited for what Marvel and Disney have planned for the MCU.

That is the MCU over the next two years as it stands in April 2021. Remember that Phase 4 was originally set to end in the Fall of this year and we’re only now just getting started. We’re getting some huge series on Disney+ and a massive set of movies over the next two years culminating with the first previously-owned FOX property finally entering the MCU, Marvel’s First Family, the Fantastic Four. I’m super excited for what Marvel and Disney have planned for the MCU. I’m personally excited for Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel 2, the Ms. Marvel series, the Hawkeye series, and of course, anything and everything Spidey.

Today I received my first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, and I feel great. I’m really hopeful this entire ordeal is behind us, and within a few months we’ll all be back in theaters cheering on Black Widow this summer and Spidey this Christmas. I’m ready for it.

🍕 WandaVision, or An Ode to Weekly TV Episodes Again 2/11/2021

WandaVision Wanda Eyes

Warning: Spoilers for the first half of WandaVision follow.

I remember the weekend Stranger Things season one was released by Netflix. Having heard nothing about this new show, Netflix’s recommendation algorithm slapped it onto my screen and I (liking the 80’s movie poster artwork) clicked Play. I watched the whole eight episode first season in a weekend.

Over the following weeks and months I saw more and more people began to discover Stranger Things, and the series became a cultural hit. But it was difficult to talk to people about the show, because everyone was somewhere different in the series. Some people were just starting it, some people were in the middle, some people were finishing it. And you had no idea where anyone else was in relationship to your own viewing. You were just as likely to spoil something as be spoiled if you discussed the show with anyone.

It was difficult to talk to people about the show, because everyone was somewhere else in the series. You were just as likely to spoil something as be spoiled if you discussed the show with anyone.

As Netflix continued releasing new seasons of shows like Stranger Things, Daredevil, and Bojack Horseman at midnight, this risk of being spoiled by a stray tweet or overheard breakroom chat become more likely — unless you finished the season first. Many TV bloggers and die-hard fans stayed up into the early morning hours watching every episode of a new season in a massive, eye-straining binge session.

This Netflix binge model was the best way to watch TV for some viewers — the classic cliffhanger lasted not a week, but however long it took Netflix to auto-play the next episode. I remember watching shows on broadcast TV like Gilmore Girls and Lost, and having to wait an entire week to find out what happens next — and sometimes an entire summer to find out Who Shot Mr. Burns! But those breaks between episodes — days or weeks or months — allowed for discussion and speculation with friends and co-workers on what we’d seen and what we were anticipating. I don’t think I realized then just how much Netflix robbed us of those shared social moments.

Of course, as Netflix continued to release entire seasons in a single night, traditional television continued broadcasting on a weekly basis. As a cord-cutter I missed the weekly releases of shows like Game of Thrones until HBO Now began streaming them simultaneously with the cable broadcast. Before streaming became the norm, I had to wait for the season to release on a disc.

But it wasn’t long before the other, non-Netflix streaming services had exclusive series of their own. One of the first streamers to break the Netflix all-at-once release model was Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu premiered the first three episodes on the same day, but at the end credits of episode three it felt like hitting a wall. Viewers would now be forced to wait a week to see the next episode. That was a tough sell on Hulu’s part: After years of Netflix giving us the beginning, middle, and end all at once, now we were being told to wait.

After years of Netflix giving us the beginning, middle, and end all at once, now we were being told to wait.

For companies like Hulu and Apple TV+, releasing weekly episodes gives their paying customers a reason to resubscribe for another month. Each year I pay for about two or three months of CBS All Access to watch Star Trek and then cancel the subscription when the season ends, but if they released all episodes on the same day, I’d pay for just a month, watch everything in a week, and cancel the subscription. CBS makes a couple of extra bucks off me each year by using the weekly release schedule, and that’s fine. I actually prefer weekly episodes.

I find it easier to remember the show or previous seasons if I haven’t binged them over a weekend. (I also like not being held a prisoner of my own addiction, but that’s admittedly a me problem.) It helps to have something to look forward to at the end of the week, too — a decade ago, this might have been Friday Night Magic; during a pandemic it’s a pizza and a good TV show (or movie!). And I simply like getting to live in these worlds a little longer than if I’d streamed the whole series in a few days. This post wouldn’t exist if everyone had followed Netflix’s example.

Which brings me to WandaVision: the epitome of the weekly release. We’re only five episodes — just over the halfway point — into WandaVision, but I can’t stop thinking about last week’s episode and craving next week’s episode. It’s been like this for the last four weeks, and the show just keeps getting better. Of course, Disney+ has been releasing weekly episodes of their original series since day one: They started with The Mandalorian and the wonderful theme park documentary series, The Imagineering Story by Leslie Iwerks.

WandaVision has taken us through four decades of television sitcoms, from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Bewitched to Family Ties to Malcolm in the Middle, with commercial breaks and catchy theme song opening credits. Each episode is a new decade (with an episodic interlude from the present day as the all-star B-list humans try to solve the mystery of Westview) that includes laugh tracks and meta-references to the MCU itself. WandaVision shouldn’t work as a weekly episodic television show, except a solid decade of MCU films has earned it the trust and patence of the audience. We know we’re halfway through the season, and we also know the really unbelievable thing still hasn’t happened yet.

Although ninety percent of WandaVision is filmed like a sitcom, the show is carried by movie star talent Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany. Both reprise their roles from the MCU films (with Bettany staring in the MCU since the very beginning as Jarvis in Iron Man), moving seamlessly from cheesy punchline to creepy apprehension to subtly threatening. Wanda is dealing with anger and grief from the events of Infinity War and Endgame and even Age of Ultron, building off half a decade of character building to create a show unlike anything else in the MCU.

“When [Wanda] loses her mind, it’s my favorite thing in the comics,” says Elizabeth Olsen.

WandaVision works because everyone — the cast, the producers, the fans — is heavily invested. I am a huge MCU nerd (see: A Brief History of Spider-Man in Cinema) and I’ve read many of the comics involving Wanda and The Vision. Watching the series, I feel like WandaVision was made for the kind of nerd I am, who enjoys seeing how all the moving parts fit together between the massive Endgame cinematic experiences and the more intimate story of Wanda and The Vision. I know that series director Matt Shakman has a deep appreciation of classic television sitcoms and comic books. And Olsen said during a 2015 interview while promoting Age of Ultron that her favorite Scarlet Witch storyline from the comics was “House of M,” and when asked what she would like to see next for Wanda, she predicts WandaVision: “If she could have two fake babies and everyone tell her that they don’t really exist and then just go nuts — that would be unbelievable but I don’t think they’re going to do that, it might be a little too dark for the Marvel Universe. When she loses her mind, it’s my favorite thing in the comics.” Olsen not only knows her character’s comics history but was also spoiling WandaVision half a decade before it was filmed. And now Olsen is playing out her favorite character moments from the comics.

WandaVision is an unusual type of TV show, and it’s also an extremely good TV show. But the real triumph of WandaVision is we’re still talking about the show weeks after it premiered — and we’re going to continue to talk about it for the next several weeks as Disney+ continues to release new episodes. WandaVision didn’t invent or re-invent the idea of weekly TV episodes, but the show has embraced the concept wholeheartedly and I hope weekly becomes the norm in TV again. We get to share this journey together as Wanda “loses her mind” in just 40-minute increments each Friday, then spend the entire week writing, tweeting, TikToking, and sharing wild theories about the meaning of an X-ray or an X-Man. We get to live in this strange and uncanny world of sitcoms and superheroes for eight weeks — together. When was the last time we got to do anything together, Marvel fans? This is the best way to watch TV, and I hope we never go back to weekend binging.

🍕 Pizza Emoji’s One Year Anniversary 8/31/2020

Pizza Emoji Logo and Confetti

Today is the one year anniversary of Pizza Emoji!

And what a year it’s been. I didn’t set out to start a blog six months before a worldwide pandemic, but here we are. If you’ve been a reader, thanks for reading! If this is your first visit, add a bookmark and come back soon.

I’ve had a lot of fun writing Pizza Emoji, working on the site design, and improving my linux server administration skill set. I’m looking forward to the next year of Pizza Emoji, because there’s so much left to do, like getting the RSS feed working!

Incredibly, Pizza Emoji doesn’t ask for your money, doesn’t track you and sell your data, and doesn’t run ads. I’m not sure what kind of business model that is, but it doesn’t seem like a very good one from my end. Maybe someday I’ll find a way to make money from writing, but not today. So instead, I thought maybe I could ask something of my Pizza Emoji readers. I promise it won’t cost you a dime and it might save someone’s life.

You don’t need to be bitten by a radioactive spider to be a life saving superhero.

I think everyone wants to be a superhero. Super powers are cool, and when I see Spider-Man swinging around New York City in the comics and movies, that just looks like the best thing ever. Spidey and Co. are also out there saving lives, but you don’t need to be bitten by a radioactive spider to be a life saving superhero.

Every three minutes, someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer, and every ten minutes, someone dies from a blood cancer. For many people with leukemia and lymphoma, getting a bone marrow donation from a compatible donor is their only cure.

Today, donating bone marrow is nearly painless, and the vast majority of donations are actually peripheral blood stem cells, which are donated by IV. The donor’s blood is pumped out one arm, passes through a machine that filters out the blood-forming cells, then pumps the blood back into the other arm. For actual surgical bone marrow donation, it’s a quick out-patient procedure that may leave a little bruising for a few days. But the biggest issue is finding a donor: if the donor’s family members aren’t a compatible match, doctor’s turn to “the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world,” Be the Match.

Be the Match works to find compatible bone marrow donors for patients diagnosed with life-threatening blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. By becoming a donor, you’re literally saving someone’s life.

And like I said, there’s no cost to you: Be the Match pays for travel to the hospital, meals, and even a hotel if you need to travel out of town. But the absolute best part? That’s the life saving. Because if you are called to donate, it means you were matched with somebody suffering from a terrible illness. And all you have to do is give a little marrow to save their life. You know, superhero stuff.

All you have to do is give a little marrow to save someone’s life. You know, superhero stuff.

If you’ve never signed up for Be the Match, it’s free and easy: they’ll send you a little swab kit, you swab your mouth, send it back, and they’ll do the rest. If you match with someone, they’ll let you know. They especially need people of color, so please consider signing up, and getting your friends and family to sign up, too. And should you ever decide to leave the registry, it’s an easy opt-out process.

And remember, the actual donation, should you be called, is nearly painless and often involves a few hours hooked up to an IV.

Even if you can’t donate marrow for whatever reason, but you’ve got some money, consider a financial donation. You’re still a hero in my comic book.

I signed up for Be the Match about a decade ago; I’ve never been called to donate marrow, but I’ve donated financially. And this isn’t one of those paid posts: I just wanted Pizza Emoji’s first anniversary to be a little special, and what’s more special than saving someone’s life?

You can make a donation without spending a cent.

I know, there are so many charities that need your help, but this is one of the few charities that you can make a donation to without spending a cent. Thousands of people of all ages, children, teenagers, and adults, are searching the registry everyday in the hope of finding a match. You could Be the Match they need to save their life.

Thanks for reading.

🍕 The Last of Us Part II Review 7/25/2020

Ellie with a pipe, The Last of Us Part II

Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II follow.

There’s a point in The Last of Us Part II where Ellie needs a woman to provide her with information about Abby, the person she’s been pursuing across the city of Seattle. The woman is choking on spores in a hallway and will be dead in a matter of hours, but she tells Ellie she won’t give up her friend.

Ellie says, “I can make it quick, or I can make it so much worse.”

“I can make it quick, or I can make it so much worse.”

A metal pipe is clenched in Ellie’s hand, but the woman is defiant. At this point, the camera cuts to Ellie’s face; anger flashes in her eyes, her breathing intensifies, she grits her teeth. The game prompts the player to press Square. When the player pushes the button, Ellie strikes the woman with the pipe. The prompt to press Square returns, and so the player again pushes the button. Ellie strikes the woman a second time with the pipe. Ellie’s face is splattered with the woman’s blood, and the Square button prompt returns once more. The player presses the button, Ellie swings the pipe, a scream, and the game cuts to black.

It’s a violent, terrible way to die, and it’s a violent, terrible way to kill someone. Even in a video game.

And I didn’t want to press Square. There are many points in this game where I don’t want to do what Ellie is doing. Ellie does terrible things to every person she encounters in this game, including her friends, but especially her enemies.

Sequels are never what we want. We think we want a part two, but as is so often the case, the sequel is a disappointment. And we’re partially to blame for that disappointment: we spend months and years speculating and envisioning all the ways we want that sequel to play out, the character arcs, the settings, the major and minor story points. But in The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog takes Ellie into such a grim and cruel place that I struggled to find anything redeeming about the character or story by the end of the game. This wasn’t the version of Ellie I wanted to spend my nights and weekends with, and I’m upset by this terrible journey Ellie’s been on and everything that’s been taken from her.

This was not the same girl from just four years ago who I traveled across the country with, stopping to hear bad jokes and watching her watch grazing giraffes in awe and wonder. In the final flashback of the game, of the night prior to the inciting incident, Ellie tells Joel she wished he hadn’t saved her in that Salt Lake City hospital, so that a vaccine could be developed and her life — and death — could have purpose. Days later she leaves for Seattle to enact revenge. Ellie’s blind rage is a character flaw so great that it devours the character and everything good along with it. If anything, Ellie’s character arc changes from a girl with depth and desires and feelings and needs into an undeveloped comic book villain from the 60’s, just another cookie-cutter bad guy. The problem with the main character in a video game being a cookie-cutter villain is it makes for a boring main character.

Working through this game was a slog; the game felt tedious and overly long. The constant gray skies and rain didn’t help the exhaustion. Part of that exhaustion is replaying the game as Abby, Ellie’s new antagonist. Abby could be likable if not for her own story of revenge (take a number). The player assumes control of Abby immediately after she kills Ellie’s friend, and it is a jarring and difficult transition. It took me a long time to get to a point where I found a type of forgiveness for Abby. But Naughty Dog builds Abby on a worn out formula, and while the game likes to remind the player that Abby is a layered and flawed character, it never gives the player an opportunity to decide that for themselves. Even less is learned about her stereotypical friends, who come off as nauseatingly charming right from the start and are cannon fodder for Ellie’s rampage. They help to reveal nothing about Abby, and then they die. Abby’s companion through most of Part II is Lev, and I feel like we get a better idea of who he is on their journey together. I was honestly moved by his story, his loss, and his bravery. But Lev isn’t driven by revenge, his motivation in the beginning is love. It’s a stark and refreshing contrast to Abby’s cold blooded golf club torture and murder. I wonder if she ever tells Lev about the cabin in Wyoming, and I wonder how he’d react. Someone tell me when the Abby and Lev DLC is coming. (It’s not?! What’s the matter, Naughty Dog, you guys just don’t like money?)

Lev isn’t driven by revenge, his motivation in the beginning is love.

By the time the player is back in control of Ellie, for the extended epilogue of an already too long game, Ellie’s setting out to slaughter more dudes. Again, these are the actions of someone I just don’t recognize, and the only reason I can find for Ellie to set off again is to keep the game going. By the time Ellie can finally confront Abby, they’re both weak and nearly dead. And here’s the final spoiler of the game, so last warning — Ellie doesn’t kill Abby. Ellie has killed dozens of people by now — militia and cultists and biker dudes — to get to Abby, but she can’t take just one more life. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the situation. With Abby nearly dead, Ellie just lets her go. For the final, final epilogue in the game, Ellie returns home only to realize that she’s lost everything.

While the ending of the first game left players with many questions and interpretations, it provided closure for Joel, and by extension, the player. During the final hike together, Joel talks openly about his daughter with Ellie for the first time. It’s taken Joel twenty years, but he’s finally starting to heal from that unthinkable night in Texas. But Part II just keeps taking things from Ellie. She never gets the chance to come to terms with her loss, or her grief, or her PTSD attacks, and because of that I don’t think the player gets that chance, either. It’s a tough ending that doesn’t sit well with me. While I have no doubt Part III will try to wrap up these loose feelings, I don’t think it’s good storytelling to force your audience to wait six years for closure.

Crouch, sneak, press Triangle. You either enjoy it or you don’t.

Technically, gameplay hasn’t changed at all from the original, with enemy encounters feeling mostly reused from the previous game. Crouch, sneak, press Triangle. You either enjoy it or you don’t. I enjoy the scavenging and being forced to try different tactics to conserve ammo or use weapons I’m not particularly fond of using, but there’s not a lot of variety in the setups. Some dudes are patrolling an area, usually one will walk out of sight of the others, you send an arrow into his head, rinse and repeat. Ellie and Abby are visually different and use a slightly different set of weapons, but the tactics and techniques you learn for Ellie are identical for Abby. Even Mario and Luigi have different run and jump styles in most Mario Bros. games, so I’m disappointed the woman’s physics are essentially a copy and paste job. Sometimes the stealth system was a little persnickety when it comes to hiding from enemies, and I found the dogs highly unpredictable and buggy. Hopefully future patches can iron these little illusion-breakers out.

Visually, there’s nothing wrong with this game. Cutscenes are rendered beautifully and the detail of the models — even on an eight year old console — are some of the best I’ve seen on a PS4. Eyes look wet and life-like, and faces carry so much expression that it’s easy to see actors Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey in their performances of Ellie and Abby, respectively. And I don’t want to gloss over the performances: from the voice acting to the motion capture to the animation and modeling, the artistry on display here is extraordinary. I grew up playing with pixels and I’m now walking along roads on horseback with actual living, breathing people — or at least my brain wants to believe these collections of polygons and audio files are real people. It’s funny how real Ellie and Joel and Tommy and Abby and Lev and Sarah are (or were) to me, and ironically it’s this attention to realism, the performances from this amazing cast and animators, that make me care so much about Ellie that I find the story of The Last of Us Part II so damn polarizing.

The Last of Us Part II is a tedious and abrasive story of revenge. The game is a visually stunning masterpiece but lacks all the heart and soul of the original. While Ellie’s actions often feel as if they’re needed simply to keep the game’s plot moving, there’s no atonement or return home for either Ellie or Abby, and the journey of the hero is left unfulfilled. This story takes everything from Ellie and leaves the player with less. It’s not just a sequel I didn’t want to play, it’s also a bad sequel.

🍕 iPad Pro (2020) and Magic Keyboard Review 5/5/2020

iPad Pro, Magic Keyboard, and Hummingbird

Turning Up the Volume

With the iPad Pro sitting in landscape orientation on my desk, the volume keys are on the top left. The “Volume Up” key is on the left, and the “Volume Down” key is on the right.

On iPad OS, the volume indicator displays the volume increasing by filling a bar from left to right along the center top of the screen. This makes sense, as most Western UIs read left to right and showing progression is indicated by left to right visuals. (See car speedometers, computer loading bars, video game health bars, etc.)

However, on iPad, when pressing the left Volume key, the indicator fills to the right. When pressing the right Volume key, the indicator decreases to the left.

Now, in Portrait mode, the volume keys make sense. Up is up and Down is down. But in Landscape mode, the left volume key should switch and become Volume Up, and the right volume key should become Down. The keys aren’t physically labeled and the UI knows when it’s in landscape or portrait. (This is also the behavior the always-in-landscape mode Nintendo Switch follows, so the same keys, in almost the same location on similar devices do the exact opposite.)

And that is my review of the iPad Pro 2020. Because the iPad Pro’s volume-in-landscape perfectly exemplifies everything great and everything wrong with the iPad Pro, where you have hardware and software literally fighting each other, totally unnecessarily. It reminds me, dare I say it, of Windows installed on a MacBook with Bootcamp, but Bootcamp was better. With Bootcamp, when booted into Windows, if you pressed the F-12 key for Volume Up, the volume went up — it even made the little volume up sound and displayed the Mac’s native volume UI graphic. This worked so well because Bootcamp took the time to install the drivers to make these features work on Windows just like on the Mac. The same with remapping the Command key to function as the Windows key, and all the way down to the drivers for the graphics card.

Remapping the volume keys on the iPad Pro was not a feature that was cut for time or delayed until iOS 23 because Apple has too many other great features that they’re working on. This is either something every single person at Apple, from Tim Cook and Craig Federighi down to the iPadOS student intern, either didn’t notice or didn’t care enough to spend ten minutes adding a few lines of code to change the button mapping. Or, it was deeply considered at all levels and the decision to leave it the way it is won out, but my money is on the shrug emoji.

The 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a big touch screen with the A12Z, a nearly identical SoC to the previous model (with an additional unlocked graphics core) that Apple routinely touts as outperforming “most laptops” yet it routinely does less than my 5-year-old MacBook. Currently, my iPad Pro is running Ulysses, a fancy word processor. And that’s it. That’s all I’m allowed to have open, one app at a time. (Unless you can figure out Apple’s multitasking touch controls, but they’re so convoluted and unintuitive that I rarely bother with it.)

And yes, even though you can have two apps open side-by-side on the iPad Pro, you can’t have three. A device that outperforms most laptops, but it can’t run a browser, a Twitter client, and a notepad app all at the same time. It also lacks Final Cut Pro, Motion, After Effects, and Xcode, to name just a few professional apps. So how does having all this performance and all these unlocked graphics cores help me?

The obvious place to point the finger is iPadOS, which is too much of a mobile-first OS, even after ten years of powering the iPad, and eighteen months powering the iPad Pro. iPadOS was born from iOS, Apple’s iPhone operating system. Having one app open at a time on a 4-inch phone screen made a lot of sense when we were collectively learning how to type with our thumbs, but I’ve mastered thumb typing. I’ve got a full sized keyboard and trackpad now, to boot! I’m ready for an iPad with proper multi-window and multi-app support. I’m ready for professional apps. I’m ready for iPadOS to step out from the iPhone OS shadow and become its own operating system, but Apple holds it all back with a single app paradigm that this pseudo-laptop still clings to.

I’m ready for an iPad with proper multi-window and multi-app support. I’m ready for professional apps.

The plan a month ago was to do as much work as possible on an iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard, and to form some opinions on the viability of an iPad Pro being a full time replacement for a traditional laptop. Volume keys aside, here’s my take.

Not a Laptop, But Laptop-like

I’ve owned a few iPads over the years, but this is my first time with an iPad Pro, and the first iPad I’ve owned since the big multitasking launch a few years ago. I have always been a Mac user, but I’ve also worked with and owned a number of Windows and Linux-based PCs over the years. This is all to say: I’m pretty damn comfortable on a traditional desktop OS.

Moving to an iPad Pro full time, I knew right away that there’s a lot about the Mac I’d miss. BBEdit, Acorn, Amphetamine, Automator, Final Cut Pro/Adobe Premier, and the Finder were all at the top of my list. I tried iMovie as a replacement for Final Cut, and boy was that an uncomfortable experience. Files for iPadOS is not a Finder replacement, either, and there are simply some things you can’t do on iPadOS without a Mac, like unzip a file or add a custom alert sound to the device (like a New Mail sound). 

The most jarring adjustment is the way iPadOS handles files. Unlike with the Finder, you can’t just save an often used file on your Desktop (or Home Screen, as there is no Desktop). If you want to open a file on iPadOS, you need to open the app where the file is stored, then open the file from within the app. If you want to open the file with another app, you can do so through the share sheet system, but even on the iPhone I still find the share sheets difficult and clunky and time consuming. When sharing text from Ulysses, for example, the share sheet shows Zoom and Brave and Scriptable as sharing options. Scriptable at least says the file (text) is not supported. Brave tries loading it as a webpage but just hangs there until I get bored of waiting. Zoom is the best: it just totally ignores that I shared a file with it. Why is the share sheet cluttered with apps that can’t open a text document, and why do the order of the share sheet options keep changing? And why do I have to open every app and remove Zoom from every share sheet?

Why is the share sheet cluttered with apps that can’t open a text document?

iPadOS makes a lot of attempts to simplify and organize a traditional Desktop, especially for those people (you know who you are) with hundreds of PDFs, Word documents, photos, folders, and the occasional .exe file creating a nightmare desktop. But by completely removing the desktop, Apple has had to make compromises and Files app-like crutches to make up for the total lack of a user-accessible file system. I’m not arguing the Desktop or the file system is good design, but I am arguing that for a Pro device with a Pro workflow, the share sheet is bad design.

Some apps, like Amphetamine, don’t and likely won’t ever have iPad alternatives, and it’s baffling to me that the iPad doesn’t have a way to distinguish sleep settings and screen brightness between plugged into power and running on battery. Isn’t this Power Management 101?

But then there are apps and experiences, like Procreate with the Apple Pencil, that I could never have on the Mac. I’ve always been able to draw with a #2 pencil or a cheap office pen, but the iPad and Pencil have reignited the artistic spark in me that I thought I’d lost back in high school. There are moments (more on this in a minute) where I’ve doubted my decision to buy this iPad and the $500 in additional accessories. I could have waited a year and bought an ARM based Mac in 2021 and probably been very happy. When I have these doubts I pull the iPad Pro off the magnetic keyboard and do something that the MacBook could never do: draw on the screen, or lay in bed and read comics, or sit on the floor and play games, or go to the park and browse the web with my iPad’s cellular connection. You don’t need the Magic Keyboard or even an iPad Pro to enjoy these experiences, because this is where iPadOS shines, when it does Just One Thing.

But then I snap the iPad back to my Magic Keyboard and I try to do Real Work and find myself doing Just One Thing again and I sort of wish I was using my MacBook.

Say Hello to Keyboard

The Magic Keyboard is almost certainly the most expensive keyboard you’ll ever buy. As a PC gamer with a love of mechanical keyboards, I’ve bought some expensive keyboards, but the Magic Keyboard is significantly more expensive. But as a keyboard, you do get a little more, and a little less, with your purchase.

For this review, I have the iPad Pro 12.9-inch and the corresponding $350 12.9-inch Magic Keyboard.

The Magic Keyboard is only an additive to the iPad Pro. It does not remove any functionality, nor is it required. It’s very much an Apple Pencil-type of accessory, in that it provides you with another way to interact with the device. If you don’t add the Magic Keyboard to your setup, the iPad Pro is still the same iPad Pro you’ve always had.

But having the iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard creates a pseudo-laptop type of device, with a keyboard and mini trackpad. The keyboard itself is similar to a 60% keyboard, lacking the top row of F-keys and the Esc key, but includes the inverted-T arrow keys and dual Command keys. There is also a bonus Emoji key that brings up the onscreen emoji keyboard (okay, it’s actually the Globe key that allows you to change the input language, but it’s the Emoji key to me) that replaces the pointless function (Fn) key on the MacBook keyboard — pointless, as the Control Center is just a swipe away for many of these minor functions. The real pain point is the lack of an Esc key — I cannot tell you how many times I’ve hit the backtick (or grave accent) key while trying to Escape, as many 60% keyboards replace backtick with Esc. I prefer this, however if you need to escape out of something, the Command + period hotkey will usually do the job. Usually. You can also re-map the Caps Lock key to function as an Esc, which turns out is a very popular work around for iPad and Mac users, but I’m not sold on this.

The Magic Keyboard is the same width as a 15-inch MacBook keyboard, and the keys are really nice to type on, with a small amount of travel and a nice clicky sound. The keys are backlit, with the backlighting controlled by the iPad’s ambient light sensor. (In almost every review I’ve read on the Magic Keyboard, one of the major complaints is the lack of an easily accessible backlight control, but I think this is ridiculous. I’ve never felt the need to adjust the backlighting on the keyboard, and if you stop using the keyboard for a few minutes the backlighting turns off automagically. I’m not sure this is the kind of product-breaking issue that warrants repeated complaints. I rarely change the backlighting on my MacBook keyboard and I’ve never felt the need to adjust it on my Magic Keyboard. Just let the iPad set it and forget it.)

Typing a double space with the Magic Keyboard types a period, just like with the software keyboard, and the keyboard does have auto-correct and auto-capitalization on by default. All of these can be disabled in Settings app, General, Keyboards, Hardware Keyboard. (I had to finally disable auto-cap; starting a sentence with “iPad” kept changing it to “IPad” and the auto-correct wouldn’t fix it.) The top row of the software keyboard actually appears at the bottom of the screen with the Magic Keyboard, complete with Undo and auto-correct suggestions. It’s actually a really nice addition to the writing experience.

The actual keys feel like the keys of a real keyboard, and that’s because this is a real keyboard, not that weird, squishy Smart Keyboard that costs significantly less. It comes in one color, a solid black with black keys. The soft rubbery case is a different shade of black, but I consider them both black. It’s like a black pair of jeans and a black T-shirt: both black, but different materials with a slightly different shade. It does get a bit of a glare, especially on the trackpad, from my (washed regularly) fingers and hands, but it can be cleaned easily with a dry microfiber cloth. There’s also a rubbery, chemical odor to the case. It’s not particularly strong or noticeable while using the iPad, but I left it laying on a pillow for a few hours and the pillow absorbed the unpleasant scent. Unless you enjoy strange, bitter odors while sleeping, I wouldn’t recommend leaving your Magic Keyboard on your pillow.

The Magic Keyboard is heavy, but durable, and in the few times I’ve moved around with it, it hasn’t felt significantly worse in weight than a 15-inch MacBook. The USB-C port on the hinge is for charging the iPad Pro through the Smart Connector, giving you an extra port on the opposite side to plug other devices directly into the iPad for data transfer. The cheap little white USB-C to USB-C cable from Apple was way too short for me to use with desk, so I had to buy a longer cable. It’s kind of annoying: the amount of money I spent on this setup and Apple couldn’t provide me with a USB cable longer than a couple of feet.

I also almost never close the iPad Pro like I would a laptop. I leave it up pretty much full time. It’s ridiculously easy to tap the screen and wake the iPad up; it’s ridiculously difficult to pry up the screen from the fully closed position. Look at the front edge of your laptop, there’s probably a little notch cut out to slip your finger in and lift. On my iPad Pro, there’s no such notch, it’s like a very heavy one page good, and, oh yeah, there’s a magnetically attached Pencil in the way. Also, the “top” is the entire computer/screen/battery (sans keyboard), making it very top heavy. You need two hands to open it. I mean, sure, physics, so there wasn’t much I could imagine Apple could do in this situation, so I just leave it open.

Touch Me Like Your Laptops

The built-in trackpad on the Magic Keyboard is nice, if not a bit small, and it works exactly as it would on a MacBook. The trackpad physically clicks, but you can click it from anywhere on the pad. The pointer for iPadOS has been completely redesigned, and I really thought I was going to hate how it morphs into buttons and gets absorbed by icons, but it’s actually a nice, subtle effect. Although it doesn’t get absorbed by every icon and UI element, and when it doesn’t it’s a little jarring. This is mostly noticeable in Google’s YouTube app, which doesn’t feel like a designed-for-iPad kind of app in the first place. But open Ulysses or Fantastical and it functions as you’d expect. It also morphs onto the Safari close tab button, which is just tiny enough that I really dislike jabbing my fat finger into. Apps with custom UI buttons, like Overcast, need some updates to properly absorb the cursor and give it that little bit of pizzaz.

One weird aspect of the trackpad is the ratio between it and the actual screen. The iPad Pro screen is 4:3, but the trackpad is an ultrawide 16:9 (while the MacBook’s screen and trackpad ratios are the exact opposite). I think this was Apple’s attempt to make the trackpad look bigger, but while it helps with side-to-side scrolling, up and down still requires a few swipes with the fingertip. Unless you can TARDIS the size of the keyboard and trackpad (it’s bigger when its open?) there’s really nothing to be done about this. The alternative is to have the case overhand the iPad Pro when closed, and that would be… actually, that might be okay. With the Apple Pencil on top, and the slightly wider case closed, it could cover the Pencil too, preventing it from getting knocked off. I wonder if Apple experimented with that in the prototyping phase and found it didn’t work for some reason.

Display Me Something Good

The iPad is a giant screen. Ripping it off the Magic Keyboard is fun, but it’s also a unique transformation of the device that I don’t think anything else is able to similarly do today. I suspect when you hear people say, “I prefer working on an iPad,” they aren’t saying “I hate the Finder,” but instead enjoy this transformative experience.

And this is where I go when I feel I’m not getting the value I wanted or expected out of this iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil. I transform it into a comic book reader that can display comics at full size, just like their print counter-parts, or I lay it flat and draw something, or I sync my PS4 controller and play a game like What the Golf? on that nearly edgeless display. My aging MacBook Pro is still about as powerful as a $999 MacBook Air, but the iPad’s fanless operation and solid state internals make it feel so much faster. I’m giving my Apple Arcade subscription a run for it’s money.

As a writer, I would love to be able to twist this screen 90 degrees and get a lot more writing space.

One aspect of the iPad Pro that you sort of lose with the Magic Keyboard is orientation. You can only magnetically attach the keyboard in Landscape, which I find really disappointing. As a writer, I would love to be able to twist this screen 90 degrees and get a lot more writing space. This was an easy opportunity to one-up the MacBook writers, but Apple completely whiffed on it. With Ulysses, for example, the default is to show you the set of Library folders, the files in the Library, and the page you’re typing on, so a three-way split. About half the screen is just static space at best, a distraction at worst. You can tap the full screen view, but now about one quarter of the screen on either side is just dead space. I appreciate a good margin, but so much is wasted in Landscape. This is the biggest shortcoming of the Magic Keyboard. I would have happily spent another $50 for a Magic Keyboard that can mount the iPad in both Landscape and Portrait orientation.

Otherwise, it’s a great display. It easily wipes clean with a microfiber cloth, which oddly Apple doesn’t include in the box, but they include microfibers with MacBooks. Or they used to — do they still provide the little black microfiber cloths? I’m also really happy with the 12.9-inch size. I was concerned it would be too big, but I think this almost-13-inch screen is a great compromise between reading, writing, and watching movies while still being highly portable.

Smile for the LiDAR

The Magic Keyboard has a little cutout in the back of the case for the iPad Pro 2020 camera system. I’m sure this is more about accommodating the unnecessarily large camera bump and less about really expecting people to take a photo while holding the Magic Keyboard with iPad Pro attached to it in the air. But that’s exactly what I did.

The camera does not have night mode. I’m not sure what the camera generation is, but I’d wager around the iPhone XS based on the quality of the night shot I took. Which is to say, extremely disappointing. “But why are you trying to take a photo with your iPad, anyways?” you may be asking. Well, I’ve been asking that for a decade. The iPad should have a forward facing camera. And that’s it.

There’s also a LiDAR system on here but, just, why? I know, the rumor is the iPhone is going to have it in the Fall, so this gives Apple a way to put the LiDAR system in their developers’ hands for app creation without spoiling the fact the iPhone will have LiDAR in the fall. Well, if the whole reason is to give devs something to play with before the iPhone gets it, aren’t we basically spoiling the iPhone?

This is all to say, the iPad Pro camera system is bad, unnecessary, and I will probably never again launch the camera app for the rest of this iPad’s life.

The front-facing camera angle makes it appear you’re looking way off to the side.

The iPad Pro front facing camera is the real story. The front facing camera is great, but when attached to the Magic Keyboard (or placed anytime in Landscape mode) the camera ends up off to the side. Despite actually looking at the screen, the camera angle makes it appear you’re looking way off to the side and not participating in the conversation.

This is another situation, like the volume keys, where Apple could have made a choice to place the front facing camera on the edge of the iPad Pro that would usually be on top when in Landscape. Instead, they chose Portrait. The issue with Portrait is that Apple has positioned the iPad Pro as a competitor to traditional laptops, all of which have front facing cameras that frame their users in Landscape. If you set the iPad Pro to Portrait, you are framed noticeably different than everyone else on their landscape laptop webcams. If you set the iPad Pro onto your Smart/Magic Keyboard, you’re looking way off to the side.

Inside and Out

The 2020 iPad Pro has the A12Z SoC and 6 GB of RAM. It’s available with up to 1 TB of storage, and a giant battery. Also, I have the LTE version.

The design of the screen, the edges, the buttons, is outstanding, just as you’d expect for an Apple product. Even the volume buttons are nicely designed. The iPad Pro uses USB-C, and while I’ve said for a long time that Apple is not going to switch the iPhone to USB-C anytime soon, now that I’m starting to build a collection of USB-C devices, I definitely understand the passion of Team Make-the-iPhone-USB-C-Already,-Apple, but remain firmly on Team It’s-Just-Not-Gonna-Happen,-You-Guys. But here’s hoping.

And that’s all I really have to say on the iPad Pro specs.

We Need to Talk, iPadOS

iPadOS still has too much iOS in it. 

The one app at a time paradigm is not suitable for a professional computer.

The one app at a time paradigm is not suitable for a professional computer. Case in point: Video conferencing. If I’m using Zoom on my MacBook, I can easily click to check my email, then click to my notes, then open a browser window to reference something, then back to my notes, all with Zoom still running uninterrupted. You cannot do that on an iPad. As soon as you swipe away from Zoom, the camera and mic cut out, as iPadOS doesn’t allow background apps access to the camera and mic.

Little things, like the App Switcher (Command + Tab) has a max of 9 apps that it can show and allow you to switch between, and the Home Screen has a max of 30 apps it can display on a single screen. There’s a lot of empty space left over on both the App Switcher and Home Screen. Sure, the spacing feels nice, but do what Gmail does, and give users the option of cramming more information into these spaces.

As I’ve discussed, a lack of professional apps and a lack of real multi-tasking/multi-window support don’t just impede a workflow, but can outright break it. Multitasking needs to be re-thought if Apple wants to push the iPad Pro as a pro-device, because the way it works (you can only multitask with apps in the dock, you can’t have, say, Tweetbot paired with Safari and Mail, etc.) make multitasking frustrating and difficult. I would love to have Messages open next to every app I’m using, but I’m not going to manually drag it up every time I switch to a new app.

It’s also impossible to know which app is in focus (in front) when apps are side-by-side when doing this split-view multi-tasking approach. I’ve tried to start typing in one app so many times only to realize the other app was in focus.

And arguing for deeper Shortcuts integration is fine. Shortcuts are a great addition to the OS, but they’re a band-aid to a bigger issue of usability and design (determining which app is in focus is not solved by more powerful Shortcuts).

Nothing about iPadOS feels designed for a power user. There are too many animations and transition effects making the iPad Pro feel slower than it is (run a Shortcut that calls actions from two or three apps, then do the same with macOS’s Automator, and you’ll understand my point). All of this can be improved, but Apple has got to allow iPadOS to grow up and be it’s own OS.

Size Matters

There are some significant differences between Magic Keyboard sizes for the iPad Pro. All keys on the 12.9-inch keyboard feel full size and nearly identical to their placement on a MacBook. The 11-inch keyboard has many of the none-alphanumeric keys, like punctuation and Command, Option, Control modifier keys, reduced in size by varying degrees. It also appears, based on what I’ve heard and read, the screen overhang is more pronounced on the 11-inch, causing more finger bumping when trying to type numbers or Delete. If you’ve got an 11-inch iPad Pro, or haven’t decided between the 12.9-inch and 11-inch sizes, the Sweet Setup has a detailed review of the 11-inch model. I’d recommend checking this review before placing any orders, although the Apple Store (both online and in person) make returns very easy.

Lastly

The iPad Pro is an extremely powerful, beautiful, multifunctional device hindered only by its operating system. iPadOS is both elegant and frustrating in its simplicity of design.

iPadOS is a great OS, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great OS for a $329 iPad purchased for a kid, or a 20-something looking for a simple social media device, or a grandparent. It’s reliable, secure, sometimes intuitive, inviting, fun, and really difficult to break. (Remember back on System 7, how you could just drag the System file to the Trash and then restart to get the Flashing Question Mark Folder? Good times.)

The iPad Pro is an extremely powerful, beautiful, multifunctional device hindered only by its operating system.

iPadOS is a great OS, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great OS for a $329 iPad purchased for a kid, or a 20-something looking for a simple social media device, or a grandparent. It’s reliable, secure, sometimes intuitive, inviting, fun, and really difficult to break.

But as a professional desktop replacement, the iPad Pro lacks so much. Pro apps, to start with. A file system. Real multi-tasking. Apple sold me a real keyboard and a real trackpad and a beautiful screen all powered by an OS designed 13 years ago for a very different type of device, and for a very different type of audience, an audience that ohh’ed and ahh’ed as Steve Jobs demonstrated touch scrolling on the iPhone for the very first time. Sure, Apple added (and then kinda broke) text selection and copy and paste, and my Home Screen can now display the weather and my calendar, and now there’s a cursor for my trackpad, but we’re so far away from the power of a terminal.

Not that I bought my iPad Pro expecting to find a built-in terminal. But someday I would like to have, maybe, two windows open and be able to visually identify which window is in focus. The ability to have multiple windows on screen ups the complexity, but it doesn’t diminish security, and it doesn’t make the iPad less fun. I can still tear it away from the Magic Keyboard, lay in the grass, and sketch the large tree in the front yard with Procreate at full screen. This is the iPad’s strength, its bread and butter, its joyful experience. But when I get back inside, and re-attach it to my Magic Keyboard, I need it to cut the whimsey and let me get back to work.

And unlike the iPhone, there’s no Up or Down on the iPad Pro. Regardless of how you hold it, any edge can be Up. But if you hold the iPad Pro with the front-facing camera on the bottom, and the USB-C port at the top (effectively “upside-down”), even though iOS correctly rotates the screen for you, the volume buttons remain hard-coded, and now the volume key on top turns the volume down.

The iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard is all about fun, which is why I’m finishing my iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard review on my MacBook Pro. iPadOS is just not quite ready to take the workday seriously, but that’s okay: I have a lot of comic books saved up that I need to read.

🍕 A Brief History of Spider-Man in Cinema 2/4/2020

Spider-Men Maguire, Holland, and Garfield

Spider-Man has been a popular comic book superhero since he first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962. Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spidey has been web swinging on the pages of comics and newspapers, in cartoons, television shows, movies, video games, amusement parks, and even on Broadway. This post attempts to catalog Spidey’s first 50 years on the big screen, including behind the scene struggles to produce films, his imprisonment within Sony Pictures, and what the future holds for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Donald Glut’s fan film was the first ‘Spider-Man’ film shown in a cinema.

Spider-Man premiered on film in the 1969 fan film Spider-Man, featuring special visual effects, miniatures, explosions, and stunts performed by a Spider-Man blow-up doll. The climax (at about the ten minute mark) features Spidey swinging after the villainous Dr. Lightning (played by Doctor Doom in a t-shirt) as he attempts to make his escape in a red muscle car. The film was made by amateur filmmaker Donald F. Glut (who also stared as Spidey) and who had previously made several other superhero-related fan films. Glut would later go on to write for the classic 80’s Spider-Man cartoon series and a variety of other cartoons, including an episode of X-Men: The Animated Series. Glut’s Spider-Man fan film was actually screened at the University of Southern California, truly making it the first Spider-Man film shown in a cinema.

The first official live-action Spider-Man film was the 1977 CBS TV movieSpider-Man, featuring mind-controlled bad guys and staring Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The ’77 Spider-Man, while not a true cinematic release, launched a live-action TV series that ran for 13 episodes. Some of the wire work that gave Spidey his ability to wall crawl is honestly impressive, but the whole show is badly dated by cheesy dialogue, a disco soundtrack, and bellbottoms. Two theatrical releases were eventually produced by re-editing episodes but these were released only in Europe.

Also in the late 70’s, Toei Company, a Japanese production company, released their own version of Spider-Man on television and in theaters. While Spider-Man has all of his normal abilities — shooting webs, climbing on walls, Spider Sense, and the classic red-and-blue costume — his extraterrestrial origin and the enemies he faces are entirely unique to Japan. In the 40 episode series, Spider-Man usually fights a monster-of-the-week type villain, but near the end of the fight the monster grows into a giant version of itself. At this point, Spider-Man calls down his spaceship that transforms into a giant robot with a sword, and he defeats the monster in a huge explosion. This was a very different Spider-Man created for kids and designed to sell toys, with Spider-Man’s robots and cars created out of necessity as a way to finance the show. If all of this is beginning to sound mighty familiar to you, this is probably because Spider-Man‘s success in Japan heavily influenced the Toei-produced Super Sentai series, better known in the West as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. When Toei began work on Spider-Man, they put the current Super Sentai series on hiatus for a year. When the Super Sentai series returned, Battle Fever J introduced the giant mechas to the franchise. And later, Spider-Man’s transforming robot, Leopardon, would also heavily influence the creation of the Marvel comic book The Transformers (in which Spidey briefly battles Megatron). Stan Lee praised Japan’s Spider-Man TV series for the action and special effects, noting that Japan’s culture necessitated different approaches to the traditional Marvel character.

Back in America in the mid-80’s, Stan Lee veto’ed the “Peter Parker transforms into a giant, hairy, eight-armed tarantula and is locked in a basement after refusing to join a mutant master-race” concept at Cannon films and Spider-Man languished in development hell as budgets were slashed repeatedly. Due to the failures of Superman IV and Masters of the Universe, Cannon eventually bailed on the whole idea of a superhero movie and the film rights to Spider-Man found their way to 21st Century Film Corp. At one point James Cameron submitted a script draft with Arnold Schwarzenegger attached to play Doc Ock. (Let’s just pause for a moment and imagine the alternate reality where that film was made. Okay, let’s move on.) As part of a severance package from Cannon Films, co-owner Menahem Golan walked away with 21st Century Film Corp. and the film rights to Spider-Man (and Captain America). To get financing for the Spider-Man film, Golan sold the TV, home video, and theatrical rights to three different companies, but of course the film was never made. In 1995 a judge ruled that the film rights as originally sold to Cannon had now reverted back to Marvel, but a year later, with the entire comics industry hurting, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. With the bankruptcy came the ToyBiz merger, with co-owner Avi Arad becoming Marvel’s CEO. Marvel sold the film rights to their most popular characters for whatever amount they could get in the late 90’s. Sony Pictures picked up the film rights to Spidey in 1999 for a mere $7 million, which is where Spider-Man remains jailed in perpetuity.

Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ was the first movie ever to earn $100 million in an opening weekend.

Staring Toby Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi, 2002’s Spider-Man was a massive success and the first film to earn $100 million in an opening weekend. (I know, how quaint, right?) The original teaser trailer for the film shows a helicopter trapped in a giant spider web strung between the World Trade Center towers, and the original theatrical poster has the towers reflected in the eyes of Spider-Man’s mask. Both trailer and poster were recalled after the 9/11 attacks. In the film, Spider-Man’s classic origin story is played out in full as Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, gains spider-like abilities, watches Uncle Ben die, kisses Mary-Jane Watson while hanging upside down, battles the Green Goblin, saves New York City, and – oh yeah – shoots webbing out of slits in his wrists. Now, spiders don’t shoot webbing out of their little spider legs, they actually pull webbing from their – well, it doesn’t matter, the film was a huge hit.

The 2004 sequel Spider-Man 2 featured Doctor Octopus and focused on Peter Parker’s desire to be “Spider-Man No More!” (a plot thread largely influenced by Amazing Spider-Man #50). The film was made so long ago that it was cheaper to use practical tentacles for many shots of Doc Ock instead of computer visual effects. This movie was another huge hit.

Peter Parker takes on Sandman, the Goblin, and Venom in 2007’s poorly received Spider-Man 3. In the film, Toby Maguire does this and Sam Raimi’s rein on theatrical Spider-Man films is finally put to a stop. Part 4 will never see the light of day, and Spider-Man is officially rebooted just five years later.

The Amazing Spider-Man, staring Andrew Garfield, is another big success in the Spider-Man franchise despite re-treading the same origin story audiences saw just a decade earlier. Soon-to-be-Academy-Award-Winner Emma Stone stars as Gwen Stacy, replacing MJ as Peter’s love interest, and the Lizard is the new solo Big Bad. Amazing features the return of Peter’s self-designed, artificial web shooters and the first time Peter’s parents are seen on film before ominously disappearing. There were many ominous plot threads left open by the end of the film, many characters in the shadows we never see, with the clear intention of continuing these in…

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 returns Garfield and Stone to all the fake teen relationship drama you didn’t want to see in a superhero movie. Electro and the Green Goblin are Spidey’s foes this time around, while Felicia Hardy (aka Black Cat) and the Rhino make some blink-and-you-miss-them cameos. More is revealed about the disappearance of Peter’s parents, but before all the mysteries are revealed, the film was over and the bad reviews were out.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was supposed to be the start of Sony’s Spider-Man Cinematic Universe, designed to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Venom, the Sinister Six, Black Cat, Spider-Man 2099, and two additional Spider-Man films planned and in various early stages of production, but after Amazing 2 performed poorly at the box office with lackluster audience and critic reviews, Sony gave up on all future films.

Tom Holland is cast as Spider-Man in ‘Captain America: Civil War’.

Finally, in 2014, Sony Pictures was hacked by North Korea (maybe, probably, who knows) and among the leaked documents were details of a Disney/Sony team-up that will introduce Spidey into the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Tom Holland is cast as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War. Spidey finally joins Iron-Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, Winter Soldier, Falcon, War Machine, Vision, and also making his MCU debut, Black Panther, in a German airport to fight against Cap as he attempts to track down the man who has brainwashed Bucky and caused the death of— you know what? The plot of Civil War is pretty convoluted. Spider-Man, however, makes a huge introduction to the MCU in this film. Peter Parker is young (Holland is an actual teenage), funny (classic Spidey quips during the battle), and the Stark Suit is Very Cool (the re-sizing of the eyes allow for expression in the mask that hasn’t been seen on film before). He swings in almost exactly at the half-way mark of Civil War (wearing a pizza t-shirt) and through a six minute chat with Tony Stark the audience skips the “bit-by-a-spider” origin story and we’re off to Germany. The chemistry between Tom Holland and Chris Evans, Sam Wilson, and Robert Downey Jr., is proof of the great casting that went into finding Holland for the role. Civil War is another huge success in both the MCU and Spider-Man franchises.

Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up immediately after where Civil War left off, with Peter Parker still euphoric over his fight against 50% of the Avengers. Homecoming introduces a few new characters to Peter’s world, including best friend Ned (based partially on Miles Morales’s best friend in the comics, Ganke Lee, and Ned Leeds, from the original Amazing Spider-Man comics) and future love interest, Michelle, who goes by her initials MJ. (According to Marvel, this is not the same character as Mary-Jane Watson, and is instead a wink and a nod to the fans. Regardless of who she is or isn’t, Zendaya has created a strong and funny character in the role of Michelle/MJ and she plays off Holland’s awkward Peter Parker masterfully.) Spidey battles Michael Keaton as the Vulture, and Robert Downey Jr. has a $10 million cameo as Iron-Man. Also showing up in cameo form is Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, aka The Prowler, aka Miles Morales’s Uncle, aka Childish Gambino, but so far, Miles has only shown up in animated form (more on that a little further down). Special nod towards Tony Revolori, who shines as Peter’s obnoxious nemesis Flash Thompson. Homecoming showcases Holland’s expert performance at being an awkward geek and a wise-cracking superhero. Missing from the Maguire/Garfield films were those moments in the comics when Spider-Man makes a trademark quip (or two, or eight) during the fight with the villain. The audience also gets much more screen time with Spider-Man in-costume as the origin of his powers (and the explanation for where this bright red and blue suit magically appears from) have already been satisfactorily explained in Civil Warand the movies, TV shows, cartoons, and comic books that have come before it. The MCU seems tired of retreading long, overplayed origin stories at this point and we’re now bee-lining into original stories with our heroes. No complaints here!

Thanos breaks the heart of every person in the theater as they watch Peter Parker dissolve into dust.

Spider-Man’s next MCU appearance would be the massive Avengers: Infinity War in 2018, and the following year’s Avengers: Endgame. In Infinity War, Spidey heads to space with Iron-Man and Doctor Strange where he meets up with the Guardians of the Galaxy to battle Thanos. Star Lord goes off-script and Thanos defeats the team in space before heading to Earth to complete his collection of Infinity Stones. With the snap of his fingers, Thanos breaks the heart of every person in the theater as they watch Peter Parker dissolve into dust in Tony Stark’s arms. Five years of movie time (and one very long real year) pass when Endgame picks up again as the remaining Avengers devise a plan to travel into the past and borrow the Infinity Stones from previous MCU films. (Endgame is also the final film with a Stan Lee cameo.) The Avengers snap-back everyone dusted by Thanos, who’s past self shows up to try the whole snapping plan again. Spider-Man joins the Avengers and everyone else from every MCU film (sans Natalie Portman?) as they fight the big purple guy once more and his massive army of Chitauri. Tony Stark sacrifices himself to save the world, proclaiming once again that he is Iron-Man. The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes hold a funeral for their friend.

Spider-Man: Far from Home once again picks up just days after the events of the previous film, coining the disappearance and reappearance of those affected by Thanos’s snap as “the blip.” Conveniently, all of Peter’s classmates are blipped, so they all return for the sequel. The class takes a little field trip to Europe, where Spider-Man meets a version of Nick Fury and Maria Hill, and encounters new BFF Quentin Beck/new arch-nemesis Mysterio. Spider-Man is given special Tony Stark designed spectacles, called E.D.I.T.H., that can summon killer drones and hack smartphones. Peter also self-designs a new black and red suit in a homage to the original Iron-Man suit design montage, complete with “Back in Black” soundtrack. (Happy gets the reference.) By the end of the film Peter’s secret identity is now known by Happy Hogan, Aunt May, Ned, MJ, Mysterio, everyone working at S.H.I.E.L.D, everyone fired from Stark Industries, and, oh right, the entire planet, as J. Jonah Jameson shares Beck’s final parting words with all of New York: “Spider-Man’s name is Peter Parker!”

Yikes. This is all new territory in the world of Spider-Man. Very rarely has Peter Parker been unmasked, with a public unmasking occurring once in the comics only to be reversed a few issues later with a massive continuity reset for the character. But the MCU has never treated secret identities as anything more than a design element of the costume. At the end of Iron-Man, Tony Stark proudly (and a little egotistically) announces, “I am Iron-Man,” and from then on the masks were off — or never put on in the first place. Captain America wears a mask, but his identity is known publicly. Black Panther’s identity is known to at least all of Wakanda, and Ant-Man is a known felon to the local police. Even Wanda Maximoff has never gone by her “Scarlet Witch” hero/villain name. (This is possibly due to the rights to the mutant-version of the character being owned by FOX at the time, with Marvel “borrowing” Wanda and her brother Quicksilver for Avengers: Age of Ultron on the condition they aren’t named as mutants — they instead get their powers from experiments conducted on them with the Mind Stone. Of course, this issue is now moot with Disney having purchased FOX and re-claiming the X-Men film rights.) So is unmasking Spidey a big deal in the MCU? Probably not. I don’t see Marvel undoing this reveal, and instead Peter Parker will need to deal with the consequences of being a public figure. (I’m hoping we get to see Flash’s response to the news.) This gives the filmmakers all new adventures to explore with the character, too: even if Spider-Man’s next foe is the Green Goblin, the Lizard, Electro, or Sandman, this will be a completely new story from the previous movies. This is a road the films have never trodden with Spider-Man, and with Marvel behind the storytelling, I’m fully onboard for whatever they have planned next.

Shortly after Far from Home crossed the billion dollar box office mark, a new record for a Spider-Man film, Marvel and Sony announced they had been unable to reach a new agreement to continue co-producing future Spider-Man films. Spidey would exit the MCU, and Sony would return to independently producing future Spider-Man films, with Tom Holland reprising his role as Spidey. A few weeks later, Marvel and Sony announced a new agreement had finally been reached, and Spidey would continue with the MCU for another multi-character crossover film (Avengers or Civil War style) and Marvel would co-produce the next standalone Spider-Man film. Financially, Marvel’s parent company, The Walt Disney Company, will be footing 25% of the cost of production and taking 25% of the box office haul – and as Far from Home has proven, 25% of a Spider-Man box office is still a massive payday, even for Disney.

This was an important agreement for Disney to make. With the Marvel lands opening at various Disney Parks over the next couple of years, and the Spider-Man ride specifically swinging into DCA in 2020, getting Spidey back into the MCU was a must. The story as Disney CEO Bob Iger tells it is Tom Holland actually called him on the phone about the deal with Sony and encouraged him to fix it. Iger called Sony and he said, “we have to get this done, for Tom and for the fans.” And they did. The third Spider-Man film is scheduled for release on July 16th, 2021, co-produced by Marvel and Sony, with Tom Holland returning for the sixth time as Spidey.

Spidey will return again in 2022 or 2023 with an ensemble cast of MCU characters; while this film has not yet been announced and this is the final film in Holland’s current contract with Disney and Sony, I’m hopeful this is not the final appearance of Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Sony released Venom in 2018, a reboot of the character from the Toby Maguire Spider-Man days. In the comics, much of the character of Venom is based on Spider-Man, but this film version of Venom is not set in any Spider-Man universe, and his film origin shares nothing with the wall crawler. In the comics, the design of Venom is based heavily on Spider-Man. Venom’s eyes, the way he attacks with those tentacle-like globs, his ability to wall crawl, his ability to react to danger – basically everything that makes the character who he is, he learned from Peter Parker as the symbiote. Including, crucially, Peter’s sense of power and responsibility, which changes Venom from the monster that he was into the comic book hero he’s become in recent years. Venom as a standalone character without the Spider-Man origin feels hollow and turns the Venom film into a generic monster movie.

Despite Venom receiving mostly negative reviews from critics, it made a lot of money at the box office, so Sony has begun work on a sequel. Tom Holland filmed a Spider-Man cameo for the first film but Disney/Marvel asked Sony to remove it. With the new agreement between the studios, Sony will be allowed to use Holland’s Spider-Man in their non-MCU films, including Venom 2 and the upcoming Morbius starring Jared Leto. The films are set to serve as Sony’s second attempt at launching a cinematic universe using Marvel’s Spider-Man characters. The films are not considered canon in the MCU, although Sony considers the MCU events canon for their films. Confusing? Think of it like this: Sony’s films are fan fiction for the MCU. I’m betting Sony is counting on this crossover confusion and will use it to drive MCU fans to their own films.

‘Into the Spider-Verse’ finally brings Miles Morales to the Big Screen.

Meanwhile, Sony won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature with 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This was my favorite film of 2018 (a year with a lot of great movies, including Infinity War) and its Oscar win was well deserved. Into the Spider-Verse finally brings Miles Morales to the Big Screen, telling an amazing Spider-Man story with real heart, humor, and stunning animation. Swinging along with Miles is Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man, but a kind of washed up, out of shape, down on his luck Spider-Man who recently suffered a breakup with MJ. Gwen Stacy, aka Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage), the anime-inspired Peni Parker and her SP//dr mech, and Peter Porker/Spider-Ham also help Miles as he fights the Kingpin and saves the world from a collapse/explosion of the multiverse. Multiple animated Spider-Verse sequels are already in production, including a direct sequel with Miles and Gwen with an April 8th, 2022 release date, and a Spider-Women spin-off with Gwen, Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman), and Cindy Moon (Silk). I know a lot of people won’t watch an animated film on the assumption it’s a cartoon made for kids, but Into the Spider-Verse is so much more, and well worth your time. Watch it on the biggest, highest-definition screen you can find with HDR enabled.

In 2020, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters Stage 4 with new heroes, new movies, and new streaming series on Disney+. Spider-Man’s future on the big screen is certain to continue in some form or another; the only question is if the web slinger will continue on in the MCU. Marvel and Sony have a unique opportunity to work together and share these fan-favorite characters over the next decade to tell powerful, Spider-Man centric stories that has never before been told on screen. As long as Marvel and Sony can continue their Spider-Partnership, and as long as audiences continue going to the movies, the cinematic future of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has never been more promising.

🍕 The Blue Shell: The Worst Item in Mario Kart 9/1/2019

The Blue Shell on Rainbow Road

The third game of the 2017 Nintendo World Championships was Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch, the latest in Nintendo’s long-running, turtle shell throwing, mushroom boosting, banana dropping, power sliding, kart racing series. The first race was 50cc Mount Wario, with the slower speed class chosen to possibly throw off the competitors who were more likely accustomed to the faster cups.

By the end of the first leg of the race, the top four racers had settled into their placements, with “Kyle W” taking a commanding lead in first. The commenters attempted to keep the race exciting but the skilled racers kept red turtle shells at bay by holding defensive banana peels behind their karts. It was, from a spectator’s viewpoint, a boring race (not surprising given the slow speed class).

“Oh! But here comes the Blue Shell! Here it comes!”

But then, with “Kyle W” seconds from the finish line, the notorious Blue Shell made its appearance and the commenters lost their collective minds. “Oh! But here comes the Blue Shell! Here it comes!” they excitedly shouted while talking over each other. The Blue Shell, fired from a racer in last place, flies quickly down the track, exploding when it reaches the player in first. With nothing but coins in hand the Blue Shell hit “Kyle W’s” kart, but the gamer mitigates the majority of the hit by purposely driving off the track. As he’s moved back into place by Lakitu, the commenters question if the second place driver now has a chance to take the lead. However, “Kyle W” recovers quickly and it’s clear the Blue Shell had no significant effect on the match. “Kyle W” crossed the finish line with his closest opponent seconds behind him — an eternity in a 50cc Mario Kart race.

Screenshot from the 2017 Nintendo World Championships


The 2017 Nintendo World Championships, just before the Blue Shell hits Kyle W (top left).

As anyone who’s played a Mario Kart game knows, running across question blocks and strategically using items is an essential part of winning a race. Good driving skill will get you near the top, but skillfully fired shells and stratigically held bananas will get you into first. The Blue Shell, however, is something of a unique case.

The Blue Shell (sometimes referred to as the Spiny Shell) first appeared in Mario Kart 64, the second game in the Mario Kart series. The Blue Shell acts as a long distance homing missile, locking onto the player in first place and exploding on impact, causing the player’s kart to spin out and stop moving for a few seconds. The Blue Shell is only obtained from the question blocks by racers in or near last place.

The Blue Shell’s original design purpose, according to Hideki Konno, the director of Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64, was to keep a tight race right up to the finish line by keeping everyone tightly clumped together. However, the blue shell is failing at its original objective. As the Nintendo World Championships this year clearly demonstrated, and as you can experience for yourself by playing online or watching the Pros race on Twitch, the Blue Shell is ineffective at keeping a race close.

The Blue Shell doesn’t benefit the racer who fired it.

The Blue Shell has many problems in its design and implementation in the Mario Kart series, but crucially, the Blue Shell doesn’t benefit the racer who fired it. The last place racer who gets a Blue Shell can’t see what items the first place racer is holding (Super Horn, Mushroom), so they can’t see if the hit will be successful. But it never matters to them, because firing the Blue Shell doesn’t change the race for that player. Is their kart suddenly faster? Can they no longer fall off the track? Are they transported to the point of impact in first place? No. The player firing the Blue Shell remains in last place. The Blue Shell may have helped second or third place pull ahead, but it’s a blank for last place. You, as the last place racer, may get a good laugh when you see the kart spin out on the mini-map, but — bad news — you’ve still lost the race. Any item would be more advantageous to have in last place than a Blue Shell for a racer hoping to make a comeback.

Second, the Blue Shell is a skill-less item. Most items, from the Red Shells to the Lightning Bolt, still require some sort of skill to effectively utilize them. You can’t blindly fire off a Red Shell, you’re more likely to hit a banana peel, and the effectiveness of the Bolt is dependent upon your ability to drive and drift past the slow, tiny racers. Firing a Blue Shell requires about as much skill as pushing a button on your controller.

Which brings me to point three: It doesn’t matter your placement in the race, the Blue Shell makes the game less fun for everyone. No one in last place wants to get it, as it does nothing to help them, and no one wants to be hit by one, as it feels cheap and undeserved. Isn’t the point of the game to have fun?

The director of Mario Kart 7 and 8, Kosuke Yabuki, has said about the Blue Shell: “You know, sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes in life you have something where you feel that’s not right, and that’s frustrating.” I agree, but Mario Kart is not life. Mario Kart is a game created by people who have the ability to make games that are both balanced and fun. When the Blue Shell hits the player in first on the last turn of the last lap, and the next three racers fly past her across the finish line, the designers have created a situation in a game that is not balanced and is not fun.

The Extra Credits video “The Blue Shell — Why Mario Kart’s Most Hated Item Exists,” posits that being in first place the entire game, and thus not being able to interact with other players or items, isn’t very fun. By being hit by a Blue Shell and knocked back into second or third place, these players are now having more fun. While true that Mario Kart’s best items are usually found by racers in 4th to 12th place, the challenge of holding first place can be equally enjoyable. And I’d argue that being knocked out of first by someone in twelfth never feels fun. Just an unearned knock.

In Entertainment Weekly, Kevin Sullivan argues that the Blue Shell keeps the game fun, preventing you from coasting to an easy victory, and giving you “the edge you need to come back from the bottom.” But the Blue Shell does none of this. Releasing your first Blue Shell is fun until you realize, “Well damn, I’m still losing.” But being hit by one? Let me ask you: Has your console of choice ever crashed during a boss fight? Has you PC ever blue screened just before the next auto-save? Did the wifi ever go out when your online team was closing in on victory? That’s the same level of fun as getting hit by a Blue Shell on the last lap of the race. This “edge” to climb back from last isn’t the Blue Shell, it’s a Starman, Golden Mushroom, or a Lightning Bolt — and good drifting.

There’s no single item in Mario Kart that can equalize two players of unequal driving skill, at least not one which will be fun and fair for both players. A racer who knows the tracks, knows the shortcuts, and knows how to drift is at a massive advantage before the race even starts. The design team of Mario Kart 64 attempted to fix a problem with the original Super Mario Kart by designing an all new item. They failed. Later iterations of the series have continued to try and continued to fail to fix the Blue Shell, because this isn’t an item that can be fixed.

A racer who knows the tracks, knows the shortcuts, and knows how to drift is at a massive advantage before the race even starts.

Why? Because there isn’t a problem that needs fixing. Throughout human history there has always been a last place. If you were last place in the Stone Age you were eaten. If you’re last place in Mario Kart, your character throws their hands up and cries after crossing the finish line. For as much as Nintendo would like everyone to get first, it’s just not how a racing game works. Future Mario Kart games have plenty of design space for new items. I’d love to see first place have a little more variety than just bananas and coins and the occasional Horn, and I’d really love to see last place get some cool items that give them serious comeback potential. The Blue Shell was an attempt to equalize the playing field; this is not an achievable goal, and it’s long past time to retire the Blue Shell from the Mario Kart series.